The blossoming of Rosemont: How a tiny suburb became a destination

Rosemont isn't afraid to take risks.

The late Donald E. Stephens set the tone. As Rosemont's founder and longtime mayor, Stephens transformed the tiny village from a hardscrabble industrial town into a mini-metropolis with its own convention center, sports arena and collection of high-end hotels.

Over the years, Stephens added office buildings, fine restaurants, a live theater complex, a softball stadium and other amenities to attract visitors.

Stephens even had the audacity to dig a moat in anticipation of receiving a state license for a riverboat casino. When state gaming regulators refused to give Rosemont the casino, Stephens moved on and built a movie multiplex over the moat.

Today, visitors are flocking to Rosemont's latest attraction: Fashion Outlets of Chicago, a $250 million shopping center with more than 130 brand-name outlet stores.

The two-story, 530,000-square-foot center breaks a number of long-standing rules for outlet malls, but Rosemont isn't fretting.

In fact, Mayor Bradley A. Stephens, son of the late mayor, is betting that the outlet mall will be an important component in strengthening Rosemont as the region's magnet for shopping, entertainment and dining.

“Now Rosemont pretty much has everything people need,” Stephens said. “There is no need to go to downtown Chicago.”

That's essentially been the philosophy of Rosemont since its incorporation in 1956. The village covers only 2.5 square miles. But it's blessed with being at the center of a transportation hub. It's in the shadows of O'Hare International Airport. It stands at the convergence of I-90 and I-294. And it has a stop on the CTA's Blue Line el.

Donald Stephens' ambition was to convince travelers to O'Hare that they didn't need to go to Chicago. So he built hotels and restaurants, the Donald A. Stephens Convention Center, Rosemont Horizon (now Allstate Arena), Rosemont Theatre, Rosemont Stadium for softball, Muvico 18, a movie multiplex, and MB Financial Park, a de-facto town square filled with restaurants and entertainment venues, including a bowling alley and ice skating rink.

Rosemont could claim that it is all part of a master plan. But that's not how the Stephens family rolls.

“No idea is completely off the wall. My dad taught me that,” Bradley Stephens said.

In many ways, the new Fashion Outlets of Chicago represents perhaps Rosemont's biggest risk of all.

The suburb is betting heavily on the outlet center, luring developer AWE Talisman LLC with $50 million in grants and tax breaks. But the mall, filled with luxury retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Prada, Gucci and Giorgio Armani, violates virtually every conventional outlet center practice.

It's 20 miles west of Chicago's Magnificent Mile and 16 miles east of Schaumburg's Woodfield Mall, while the typical outlet is on a remote stretch of the interstate. Fashion Outlets is two stories tall, enclosed, and trimmed with marble, granite and large pieces of art, while most outlet centers are drab, sprawling complexes. And instead of acres of parking lots, the Rosemont center has a 7-story parking garage.

“We broke every rule,” said Arthur Weiner, chairman of AWE Talisman, seeming to relish in Rosemont's risk-taking philosophy. “We didn't want this to be your typical remote outlet center. We built a model based upon a social experience. … We wanted the mall to be an integral part of the community.”

Weiner envisions travelers on layover at O'Hare taking a free shuttle bus to Rosemont to shop. Bradley Stephens believes the center will be a regional draw that might persuade shoppers to stay for dinner or a movie. Some business operators in town think visitors could stay the weekend, staying in a local hotel while attending a show or visiting the nearby Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

“This kind of ties it all together,” said Frank Stryjewski, COO of Kings Bowl of America, the massive bowling and dining center.

Of course there are some unique factors that have made Rosemont what it is today. For one, not many suburbs are blessed with being so close to an airport, an el stop and two major interstates.

“Location is so important to what Rosemont is today. You have so many different modes of transportation converging on the same place,” said John Melaniphy, president of Melaniphy & Associates, a Chicago-based real estate and retail consulting firm.

Beyond a great location, Rosemont made the decision early on that it wanted to attract commercial development, said Steve Hovany, president of Strategy Planning Association, a Schaumburg-based real estate consulting firm.

“If you don't have location, it doesn't matter. If you do, you've got to take advantage of it,” Hovany said. “They made the decision early on that they were going to be a hotel and service community — the O'Hare alternative to downtown.”

Thus, Rosemont has more hotel rooms (5,500) than residents (4,200).

Add to that Rosemont's unique family domination of municipal government. The Stephens family is to Rosemont what the Daleys used to be to Chicago. Only perhaps more so.

Donald Stephens was the village's first mayor, serving more than 50 years. When he died in 2007 at age 79, his son, Bradley Stephens became the town's second mayor.

Several other Stephens family members work for the city while others do contract work with Rosemont.

That centralization of power played a part in the Illinois Gaming Board's refusal to award Rosemont a casino contract. But there's no disputing that it's also helped Rosemont get things done that officials in other suburbs may only debate.

The Stephens family clout also helped Rosemont get a new tollway exit to the village.

“They are in a position if they want something, they have the wealth to do it,” Hovany said.

Bradley Stephens makes no apologies for how Rosemont runs.

“We're in the process of rebranding the village,” he said. “For too long, we relied on the convention business. And we spent a lot of energy on trying to get a casino. Now our mix is much broader.”

In fact, Stephens said he is relieved that Des Plaines was awarded the casino, because it is close enough for Rosemont to benefit, while the vacant space allowed the village to assemble its retail, restaurant and entertainment lineup.

“I can't explain how good it was for Rosemont not to get the casino,” Stephens said. “Without that happening, I don't think we get what we have today — a great mix of entertainment, restaurants and shopping. I guess everything happens for a reason.”

Rosemont gets help for Stephens center, seeks more

Rosemont outlet mall opens to throngs of bargain shoppers

Images: Friday at Comic Con in Rosemont

Celebs, costumed heroes pack Rosemont convention

  Rosemont Mayor Bradley Stephens, center, greets shoppers at the Fashion Outlets of Chicago during its opening earlier this month. George LeClaire/
  The entertainment district, as seen from the top of the parking lot, wouldn’t have come together if Rosemont hadn’t lost its bid for a casino. Bob Chwedyk/
  The late Mayor Donald Stephens envisioned Rosemont as an alternative to Chicago for travelers arriving at O’Hare International Airport. MARK BLACK/
  The entertainment district, as seen from the top of the parking lot, wouldn’t have come together if Rosemont hadn’t lost its bid for a casino. Bob Chwedyk/
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